Surrealism, Anthropology and Mental Health


A Friend of Order – Rene Magritte (1964)

A few weeks ago, I found myself unable to determine with any real certainty the existence of either myself or the outside world. More specifically, I felt that I could not trust my memories. I have learned latterly that this is called “depersonalisation” or “derealisation”,  and it formed the anxious nadir of my generally-poor recent mental health. For an anthropologist and an ethnographer, losing trust in memory is deeply troubling. While I have books of field notes, my work calls upon my memories more than perhaps I would like, the ineffable qualia of the field fading the longer it has been since I returned. Memory is evidence for reality, and reality is, as some sort of scientist, what I am supposed to be studying. Not being able to trust that impression of reality is discomfiting. A certain absent-mindedness, or a problem forming short-term memories, is a byproduct of the constant fight-or-flight state in which the anxious brain resides. When one’s brain thinks it is within second of being eaten by a tiger, it seems dinner plans, for instance, are not filed as “important”. The derealisation, however, was a new and frightening development, that was set into motion by the tiniest of kinks in the order of things. I have learned since that it is a defense mechanism put into place by a brain under siege from cortisol, adrenaline and other stress chemicals, and not, happily, a sign of psychosis. I visited the doctor nonetheless.

I am relaying this because it is important for academics to write about the problems that they experience with mental health, being as a third of us will experience mental health problems over the course of our PhDs. It can often feel like we are going through our issues alone, or that they are some sort of personal failing, that we are “not cut out for this sort of work”. This is not the case, and writing about it brings us closer to an academic environment when the mental health record of its apprentices is not so poor. Ending the stigma associated with mental health issues in the academy is vital, however I have sat on this post for longer than any others out of concern for how this advertises me as an academic and an anthropologist.

Now safely being treated, I am left to ponder on what I should take from my experience with anxiety-induced derealisation. Reading James Clifford’s On Ethnographic Surrealism (1981) and revisiting my own fascination with the unreal in art seems to provide some level of insight as to what it might mean for my work. Unlike the reactionary nature of derealisation, surrealism was transgressive, and transformative, in its unreality, rebelling against the traumatic mechanism of the First World War to call for a new conceptual frame through which to look at the world. Clifford sums this up by quoting Walter Benjamin:

A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside that remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath the clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body (1969)

This feeling of trauma as a result of European degradation and barbarism seems to mirror a mind at constant war and tension with itself. Just as the human mind eventually detaches from the conventional assessment of reality, so too do the people in a broken continent eventually call for a reassessment of what constitutes “real”. In the surrealists’ Europe, this generation of Benjamin’s were hostage not to the events themselves, nor even to the trauma that they caused directly, but to the implications of the reality drawn up by the war, namely the fragility and brutality of so much of human existence.

In rejecting that reality, the surrealists were taking charge of their perceptions, rather than “checking out”, as a derealising mind does. The surrealist embraces unreality actively, rather than languishing in it passively. Seeking out unreality and luxuriating in its possibility, using the Other (in this case, the unreal) as a lens, surrealists are making decisions about reality. The valorisation of dreamscapes, as you might find in a Magritte painting, was an active decision to look somewhere else. Finding their fetish objets sauvages in “exotic” cultures, surrealists found unreality through the reification of a geographical, cultural Other, from browsing the Marché aux Puces, or from absconding to other places and directly using other cultures as tools for examining our own. The lines of similarity to ethnography are clear here, as are the clear orientalist assumptions that early 20th century scholarship is saturated with.

My own work in the field has done the job of “making the strange familiar and the familiar strange”, not least because it is anxiety over the writing up of findings that has lead to a temporary detachment from reality in the first place. But it takes a deeper and more autochthonic tone than this. Necessity leads me to adopt full-time work outside of academia, as it does for many of us, and the language used about it often takes the tone that I work “in the real world”, intensifying the unreality of the work I conduct in my spare time, the work to which I have “belonged” for so long. Does the implication that I only now work “in the real world” mean I belonged in the “unreal”? This is a scary thought, much like a derealisation experience.

We have, in true anthropological style, a Levi-Straussian dichotomy of the “real, mundane, profane ” work of the day to day, the humdrum, the nine-to-five, set against the “unreal, esoteric, sacred” work of the thesis*. One makes the other feel unreal. At no time is this clearer than now. I have just come back from a four-day excursion back to Cologne for a small conference, in which much to do with cultural mapping and decision making was discussed, and I had the privilege of taking part in some wonderful exchanges of ideas with people whom I enormously respect. Now that I have returned, the conference’s location a plane trip away from my day-to-day existence reinforces the feeling of “unreality”, and my desire to prove that it exists. Academic life for me is in a different country from the one in which I live; another place or, perhaps more correctly, an Other-place.

Like the surrealists, I too have been holding on to my own objets sauvages , totems and reminders of Other-places in which I have lived. The most mundane objects from Namibia: strings of beads I wore, a t-shirt long past its wearable state; even trash from Japan: a chopstick packet from my favourite pub, an unreadable stained fortune, a train ticket. They are proof that either the “reality” or the “unreality” of my life as an anthropologist exists, not to show others, but as evidence that what happened was somehow “real”, so far away does it feel. It is a tension that breeds great stress, as well as mono no aware, or the gentle sadness of things. The same drive that causes some to repair pots with gold leaf to celebrate the passage of time, causes me to hang on to the most mundane of items from the past as evidence for my own memories. However, by following the surrealists, and by actively embracing this feeling of unreality, by confronting and examining it, the question of “what is real?” becomes not an objective right or wrong one, but instead a choice. The question becomes not “do I belong in the real world?” but simply “where do I belong?”, a happy question because it is one of the few to which I know the answer.

Surrealism, perhaps, teaches us that by taking control of and critically examining both reality and unreality, we can deal with the inevitable breaking down that happens when our reality becomes somehow traumatic (even if we have suffered no explicit traumatic incident). Our world can certainly seem traumatic, but research on the media bubbles in which many of us ensconce ourselves shows that our realities as informed by our news media are becoming ever more polarised, and different from one another, making it hard to know what is “true”. When all of our information conflicts, it is difficult to insist upon an objective reality. Instead, we should take control of our collective and conflicting unrealities, and explore the edges and boundaries of them to find new insights. Reading the meta-message is how we now are supposed to know the news.

day and night

Day and Night – MC Escher (1938)

Taking control is the primary drive in most anxiety-related behaviours. Frustration, irritability or even anger at a perceived lack of order is a manifestation of the will to control anything that one can in world perceived to be chaotic, disordered and untrustworthy. Escher seems to encapsulate this feeling in some ways. Even in nonsensical situations, such as in Day and Night, all feels ordered, everything fits. I always interpreted Escher not as hewing order from chaos but, like Franz Kafka, seeing the order in chaos and the illogicality and chaos that can be buried within order. The bureaucracy taken to its illogical conclusion expressed in The Trial seems to echo the inherent strangeness of the tessellations in Escher’s Day and Night and Encounter when they are brought out into the more “real” perspectives. Working now in something of a Kafkaesque situation, the order/chaos tension and harmony speaks to me even more profoundly than before.


Encounter – MC Escher (1944)

Where am I going with all of this? The feeling of unreality one has upon returning from the field has been touched on before, but deeper in this is the question of how anthropologists think about how we relate to the world outside our discipline, and how we adapt to living in it. This has sometimes been a story of a failure to adapt, born of a desire to belong to something we conceptualise as “the real world”. This desire is, like most desires, misplaced, and the source of great suffering and anxiety. Interrogating the notion of order, control, and the desire for both, is part of dealing with this, and unreal art forms a wonderful lens through which to examine it. Tied up in all of this is the lesson which the surrealists have to teach us: that our perceptions of reality and unreality are shaped by the choices we make as well as our feelings and experiences. By embracing the feelings of unreality and critically and academically examining them, we can have a hand in shaping our own engagement with what happens to us. This is a valuable insight in a world in which “reality” feels more unpleasantly flexible than ever.



“On Ethnographic Surrealism”, James Clifford, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 23, No. 4 (Oct., 1981), pp. 539-564

*Durkheim laughs at me once again as I even now refer to academia as “the Temple” and somehow sacred in arguments about the profit motive in university, annoying even those who agree with me in fiery wine-fuelled diatribes about the small minds of businessmen, and the casting of the moneychangers from the actual temple in Jerusalem (Matthew 21:12).


Art, Science and Real Work, or: I have no idea what I’m doing.


I’m back on fieldwork at a place just a shade north of the famous Namibian Red Line, a veterinary barrier that separates communally-worked farmland to the North, never conquered by colonial forces, and the more ordered and familiar farmland to the South, the former territory of Boers and Germans in years past. Despite being but two hours’ drive from where I sit now, in a hotel with an internet connection that I have previously called The Last Homely House of Elrond, the site feels more isolated than my last one. I have almost no mobile signal there, and trips back into the domain of Wi-Fi bring me up to speed with two weeks’ worth of news in a day, making me feel like the world is moving on very fast without me. It’s an odd feeling. I’m doing fairly well, though, and while I only have six weeks or so at this site, thanks to a much-needed trip back to Europe in May, and the increasingly pressing need to prepare for my participation at the Eleventh Conference on Hunting and Gathering Societies (CHAGS) in Vienna in September.

I’m slated for an appearance on the panel “Research and Activism among the Kalahari San” and have submitted an abstract saying, thankfully vaguely, something about fresh field data from my work at Mangetti West and Ekoka. I have ten minutes plus a Q and A, and should probably say something mildly provocative to get remembered, though the thought of Richard Lee, Akira Takada and other Kalahari anthropologists I have been reading since first year undergrad questioning me on my fieldwork and its contribution to the field fills me with a mounting sense of awe and dread. Hopefully I won’t have to reference too much literature, given my focus on fieldwork and the conference’s enthusiasm for new researchers with mud on their boots, as it were. Given that the time between my leaving Namibia and speaking there is measured in weeks rather than months, is quite probably literally true. I leave on the 24th August, when my last visa runs out. I can’t come back until 2016, having used up my 90 day tourism allowance as well, and it’s going to feel very strange. That’s next month, now.

The three weeks of research at my second site in the Mangetti farms has yielded some interesting comparisons, I think, and I’m able to get a good deal more data in a shorter time. My translator is excellent, and knows or is related to almost everyone there, meaning that the two weeks of building up a trusting relationship that had to happen in the North was cut down hugely here. I’m camping right in the village, and it means I’ve been able to get involved in events as they happen, the “participant observation” part of my work, and data-gathering is by comparison to my other site, effortless.

I even accidentally adopted a puppy, who in fact belongs to the community’s traditional healer. I started feeding the small furry family in the hope that they’d hang around camp to deter other would-be explorers (wild dogs, jackals and even hyenas are not unheard of), and the puppy I’ve named Xoriab (“hunter” in the local dialect of Khoekhoegowab, a joke on the fact he’s tiny. Say the “X” like the “ch” in loch, or the “G” in Grootfontein, for Afrikaans-speaking readers) has got rather attached to my fire and the fact I insist on teaching him to play fetch, which he does not understand.

Xoriab sitting by the fire, expecting something to happen. Probably food.

Xoriab sitting by the fire, expecting something to happen. Probably food.

I have to say I’ve grown rather attached to him, as he seems to have done for me, though I do harbour some suspicion it is cupboard love in some ways.

Some of the food is my fingers.

Some of the food is my fingers.

This post isn’t about that, though, nor is it about CHAGS. What I want to write about a bit are some of the problems that I’ve run into data-gathering for my PhD.

It’s a mammoth task, but the problems do not revolve around mere size. You’ve got to know your parameters, your variables, what questions you wish to answer, before you set out on any kind of scientific research. The problem with conducting anthropological fieldwork, or any kind of social research really, is that it isn’t really possible to know that beforehand. I was advised, before setting out, that I should have a question in mind, then be prepared to change everything about that when confronted with the field. I understand this. Better to have a plan that you later change, than no plan at all. But when the field actually presents itself to you, in all its chaotic splendour, involving as our research does the single most unpredictable organism on the face of the earth, no amount of planning can prepare you for being back at square one. As a result, I made a vague plan, knowing it would not stand up in the field. I knew the areas I would be considering: “folk knowledge”, “traditional skills” and so forth, but no more than that. I did not even have any research techniques in mind.

The problem starts with my discipline itself. It doesn’t like putting people in boxes, a strange habit for a subject concerned with primarily that upon its inception. Our ancestors measured people’s boiled skulls as well, though that is Something We Don’t Talk About any more.

Social anthropology is often said to walk a fine line between the arts and the sciences, some, rather more hardened to cliche and aphorism than I might say it is “the most artistic of the sciences and the most scientific of the arts”. I dislike this forced symmetry, but doubtless social anthropology operates on a strange bridge somewhere between the two, blurring lines and deconstructing dichotomies itself in the same way its practitioners adore doing with cultural events and ideas. During my undergraduate degree, the idea that dichotomies could be permitted to exist at all was somewhat blasphemous, and always we were encouraged to think about the outliers, the spaces between, and the borderlines. We’ve moved on from Levi-Strauss’s oppositions in the house, so to speak.

There’ve been several traditions in anthropology that have tended towards the artistic and the surreal. The undergraduate favourite (at least at Edinburgh class of ’12, represent), Clifford Geertz’s 1960s idea of “Thick Description”, posited anthropologists less as scientists but more in the way of literary critics, picking apart and interpreting culture as one would a paragraph of Tolstoy, or a stanza of Keats. I loved this. It meant we were free in some respects from the tyranny of The Scientific Method, which in my mind always smelled like antiseptic. We were artists, writers, creatives, we had sculptors’ clay under our fingernails and because we studied human culture it was the very stuff Adam was made from that we were working with. It was all Very Important. I tapped away at one thousand five hundred word essays, due at the tutorial tomorrow afternoon, about how Science (Big “S”, always) was a closed-minded, Euro-American-Centric (God forbid we say “Western”) way to think about the world, and interpretation was better, more democratic, and less white, either in coat or complexion.

From there I read (or tried to read) Michael Taussig’s Shamanism, Colonialism and the Wild Man, a foray in what you might call “surrealist anthropology”, and to be honest I do not remember a great deal about it. There’s a long, unpleasant bit about torture, which I think is an illustration about colonialism, and much of the rest of it that I read felt faintly like being led through someone else’s dream. There were definitely psychoactive drugs involved, as well there might be, given that it’s about shamanic practice among Amerindians. I remember writing a very bad essay on the subject about how there was a place in anthropology for something I really am not sure I ever understood. It’s about the limit of the really artistic stuff I ended up getting into, and I teetered on the precipice before settling back into regularly quoting the sort of things I think Geertz would have said about culture, literature, description and interpretation.

Above all else, it made me feel better. I had occasional wanderings into the bleak, sterile world of neo-modernist positivism, but I did that with most of the -isms at university, and I doubt it’s a rare crime. The idea of the anthropologist as a literary critic was attractive to me because it meant that nobody ccould ever accuse me of being wrong about anything, as such. This was just how I saw it. Great. It seemed, if I’m honest, like less work, too.

Yet here I am in Namibia on German (of all countries!) scientific money gathering data ostensibly used to flesh out a computer model of the movements of ancient hunter-gatherers, as well as fuelling some book or other and getting the very hard to obtain D before my name, followed by an elusive R and a positively impossible to pin down “.”. I write “Research Scientist” on things asking my occupation. I’ve actually had to start doing the job I’d been writing about the theory of doing for about four years.

At the root of this job is data. Data I need to gather. Questions I need to first find, then answer, as well as dealing with the practicalities of asking those questions of a very poor community, who live very far away from me, and who don’t speak any languages I do.

A lot of anthropology relies on something called “Participant Observation”, which is part loitering, part nosiness, inserting yourself into someone’s life in an attempt to learn about them. This is prime venue for the “Thick Description” side of anthropology. When I’m on fieldwork, I write. I write a lot. I’m scribbling in my little notebook when something interesting happens, and I’m writing up, scratching it all out in my bigger notebook like it’s trying to escape from my biro, when I can find two or three hours in the day that something else scribble-worthy isn’t happening.

It has its flaws, though. How do I know whether what I am seeing is reflective of the whole community? How can I accurately reflect The Truth about what is going on? I can, and have, argued for many years that there is no such thing as objective truth, but even I will concede that there is a difference between saying that the people in my field site all drive Lamborginis and saying that they place hunting as very important to their way of life when it isn’t really. As with everything, it’s a question of degree rather than kind, and I have a huge incentive to identify as closely as possible what is really going on, even if I never truly (whatever that means) know, and that is simply because I want to know, to get closer.

I can’t very well judge people solely on observation alone, then. So what about interviews? They’re another anthropological staple. Well, they work, too, but one has to be prepared for the fact that people do not blurt facts like robots. They have an interpretation, too which makes it a great tool to have in the toolbox, but not the only one.

This is where the problem starts. The anthropological toolbox is vast, and can encompass any sociological tool you like, from surveys to free-lists, psychological experiments to marriage statistics, but to the PhD student starting their research the vastness of the available tools, and the wide range of possible uses reflected in anthropology which range from systematic analyses of kinship diagrams to surreal passages about drug-fuelled shamanic rites in the Amazon Basin, the primary problem is figuring out what anthropological research is actually supposed to look like.

My problem has been gathering what you might call systematic data. By systematic, I mean answers to structured yes/no question interviews, compiling free-association lists with the same parameters, conducting a direction-finding psychological experiment, and other similar things. It’s incredibly hard to do this when your field subjects are not the least bit interested in repeating the same task with you five times, and every task you come up with on the fly, to test something you observed and wrote down scruffily yesterday, has to be either revised or miss out on some crucial aspect that you have discovered is important. Which do you sacrifice, repeatability or thoroughness?

Above all else is the feeling that despite this being a huge moment in your academic career, you are simply working it all out as you go along, as there are so many things about doing research that nobody tells you, and that you are expected to Just Know. I’d never conducted a structured interview or free-listing in my life before I got to the moment when I was constructing an exercise that will give me important information for my PhD. Nagging at me constantly is the feeling that when I step back from the systematic exercises, and think about interpretation, art, the beauty of the well-written word and the other fluffy things that help me sleep at night, I am making excuses for not doing any Real Work. And Real Work is Science. There are no standards to work to, precisely because, I think, the others who have gone before me haven’t had those standards either, and are loath to set any. The only standards are the ones I set myself. In true form for me, this means they are usually either impossible or non-existent.

The simple fact that this research is PhD research means that it is my first time doing it, or really anything approaching it. A PhD is built up to be something upon which you definitely know what you are doing, and you do it to make big and exciting waves in the academic community, but in fact it can be characterised more as your proving moment, the time you find your feet. In anthropology a scholar’s PhD thesis often becomes his or her defining work, and this fact is something that weighs heavy on my mind. What will I turn this into? Will this define me? What will it say? It is a nightmare of neuroticism and anxiety, and I am convinced social anthropology contains more people prone to neurosis and social anxiety as a proportion than does the population at large. The anthropologist I confided my concerns to got into studying people for the same reason I did: That we were neurotically doing it anyway, and had become somewhat proficient. Whether the neurosis informs the work or the work inflames the neurosis is perhaps a question for another time.

The thing to take away from this, if you happen to be reading and are suffering similar concerns in your academic work, is that the reason you do not know what you are doing is that you are not meant to. The reason nobody is telling you things that you think they think you should Just Know is that they don’t really know them either. If they do, they don’t know how they came to know them. Another anthropologist in Scotland told me that if you have no idea what you are doing, you are probably on the right track, and if you think you’ve got it all worked out then you’re probably missing something out somewhere. The world is a complex place, and human beings are perhaps the most complex of all. The only people who think they’ve got it all worked out are eighteen-year-olds and those who have never grown out of the mindset they had when they were eighteen-year-olds. Both of those sets of people are probably wrong, and I have just reminded myself of my opinions at eighteen, and cringed.

I joke at parties (it’s true, I get invites occasionally, ask anyone) and say that I am making a career pretending to have read books that I haven’t. This is hyperbole, but the nugget of truth there is that in academic circles Knowledge has a capital K, it is currency, and nobody wants to admit that they don’t know something they feel they “should know”, because the others in their circle of colleagues have been pretending they know it already. Nobody is going to tell you these things. Nobody really can. If you have not embarked upon fieldwork for an anthropological PhD you will probably, if you are like me, have existential crises on the regular and start looking for office jobs online. This is (probably) normal. The best therapy for these moments of terror is usually to plan the following day. No further. When you feel more confident, start planning weeks. When you get back, you might find you know more than you think, and tying it together will be a cinch. Get someone acquainted with your field to ask you questions about your site. Before you know it, you’ll be reeling off things and telling people that something is “common sense” when it’s something nobody has observed before. Congratulations. You’re now an anthropologist. The existential crises probably stop. I don’t know. I’ve not got that far yet.

Then again, what am I doing giving you advice? I have no idea what I’m doing.